Kansas Activist's Guide to Beating the Gun Lobby

(Bloomberg) -- Perhaps the greatest attribute of Megan Jones is that she is so unreservedly, unequivocally unreasonable. It seems to be working.

Since 2015, Jones, 25, has driven regularly from her home in Lawrence, Kansas, to Topeka, the state capital. On most days, it must seem an absurd trek. Her self-appointed, unpaid task is to persuade Kansas’s Republican legislators to sidestep the conservative craze of guns-anywhere-for-anybody-for-any-reason-or-actually-no-reason-whatsoever.

Kansas is acquainted with mad ideological pursuits. Former Governor Sam Brownback is famous for his 2012 experiment — if a program that had previously failed so decisively qualifies as “experimental” — of slashing taxes to make the economy zoom while magically generating tax revenue. Instead, state revenue collapsed. Vital services, including education, were degraded.  

Eventually, the legislature had to raise taxes to rescue the state, which saw its gross domestic product decline slightly from 2016 to 2017, a year during which 47 states, including every neighboring state, grew. A budget passed last week added $1 billion in new spending, a few months after Brownback, declaring victory, was ushered off stage to an ambassador-at-large appointment in the Trump administration.

When Megan Jones became a citizen-lobbyist, back in 2015, Kansas Republicans were busy immersing gun policy in the kind of right-wing goo in which Brownback had drowned the state’s economy. Brownback signed into law a “constitutional carry” bill, enabling Kansans 21 and older to carry concealed firearms without a permit or training.

In gun catechism, Kansas, like other permitless carry states, is a righteous Lake Wobegon, where no citizen has a drinking problem, mental illness or a hair-trigger temper, and every man is a skilled and discerning good guy who makes the world safe by carrying a concealed and loaded gun. After more than two years of debate, Jones is convinced that most of her adversaries are not hypocrites. “I think they fundamentally believe that guns make them safer and that there are threats everywhere,” she said.

At the same time that permitless carry became law, Brownback signed campus carry into law, enabling gun possession on campuses whether colleges and universities want it or not. 

That's when Jones, a daughter of evangelical missionaries who was then a graduate student at the University of Kansas, entered the arena. “That really made me angry,” she recalled in an interview in Topeka in March. “I started and a lot of other people started really fighting hard on stopping campus carry in the 2016 session.”

Jones set up a web site, failcampuscarry.com, and lobbied lawmakers to reverse the legislation, which went into effect in 2017. “When I first started I got laughed out of the room,” she said. It was a lonely crusade, in part because she chose to keep her distance from national gun-regulation groups. “I don’t pay attention to national politics at all,” she said. “I think our solutions should be Kansas-specific.”

Jones, whose grit is camouflaged by a nervous laugh, operates within a small, loose, overmatched network of supporters — but also very much alone. “I tried to start a group but it was difficult,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want their names associated with this at all. They’re afraid that they’re either going to lose their job or they’re going to get attacked.”

Brownback’s fiscal disaster aided Jones’s cause. “It really lit a fire under a lot of people like when parents and teachers were realizing we might actually lose our public school system,” she said. “That really made people wake up a bit.”

It also led to a wave of more moderate lawmakers winning election in 2016. “In Kansas, the local elections swung the opposite direction of the national elections in 2016,” she said.

Campus carry is still state law. But Jones is optimistic about overturning it. A number of other guns-everywhere bills died in the Kansas Legislature this session, including an effort to pressure school districts to arm teachers and force insurance companies to give gun-toting districts preferential treatment.  

In an email this week, Jones rattled off the victories:

HB2042 — the bill that would lower the age of concealed carry to 18 with a permit (still no permit necessary over 21) and legalize concealed carry reciprocity — didn't get voted on before sine die, so it's dead. The bill to arm teachers and force insurance coverage never made it out of committee, so it is dead. And Rep. Blake Carpenter, who wrote the bill to arm teachers, tried to lower the concealed carry license fees in an amendment to the tax bill, which failed, so that's dead too. And a bill to prohibit convicted domestic abusers from possessing guns was signed into law a few weeks ago (HB 2145). The gun lobby didn't get anything they wanted passed this year, so in my estimation, Kansas won.

There is a frequently cited quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead that has always sounded a bit syrupy to me. “Never doubt,” Mead said, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It's hard to know how significant the efforts of a relentless 25-year-old volunteer were to the failure of the gun lobby this year in Kansas. Other factors were involved, including national groups and the political aftershocks of the massacre in Parkland, Florida.

But Jones was committed and courageous. She showed up again and again. She organized. She raised her voice. And she kept at it in the face of overwhelming opposition and plenty of mansplaining.

She hasn’t won yet. But she just might.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

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